The pairing of a European classical pedal harp with an African 21-string kora sounds very unusual at first sight, but the rare duo recording of Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita is a truly remarkable feat. The association of the two stringed instrument from two different continents is the brainchild of musician, producer and tour manager John Hollis who had the idea to marry both back in the late 1980s, but no project came to fruition at the time.

The concept was however rekindled in early 2012 when master Malian kora master Toumani Diabate was invited to Wales to perform with Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita. Due to the political unrest in Mali at the start of 2012, Toumani Diabaté had to return home earlier than expected, with Seckou Keita taking over and becoming Catrin Finch’s main musical partner. The pair went into a studio, recorded and released Clychau Dibon in October 2013 on the Astar music label.

Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita - Clychau Dibon (2013)
Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita – Clychau Dibon (2013)

A classically trained musician on the 47-string concert harp and often performing on the Celtic harp too, Catrin Finch has already toured and recorded on her own music label or for Deutsche Grammophon such as her transcriptions for the harp of J.S Bach: Goldberg Variations in 2009 or her collaboration with British composer John Rutter on Blessing in 2012.

Growing up in Zinguichor in the Casamance region of Senegal, Seckou Keita was born into the Cissokho griot clan through his mother. Learning all the Manding song cycles orally from the age of 7 while also mastering various percussion techniques on African drums, Seckou Keita is a modern virtuoso and the custodian of a rich West African cultural heritage. Since settling in the UK in 1998, the musician has also recorded four albums either as a solo act or with his own quartet and performed extensively around the world with various formations.

On Clychau Dibon, the cascading strings of Catrin Finch’s Celtic or pedal harp and of Seckou Keita’s single or double-necked kora magnificently weave together new compositions, old Welsh songs or airs collected from manuscripts and orally transmitted tunes from the griot tradition.

What is striking of course is not only the manner in which both repertoires coalesce and fuse so harmoniously but also how the sound of the two instruments blends so seamlessly, making it very difficult to tell them apart. As a result, the recording hints at fascinating parallels between two distinct centuries old traditions that have never been in contact with each other but that are yet played on instruments from the same family.

When they were working on the song “Bras de Mer”, Seckou remembered this old Welsh tune that he’d once played with another Welsh harpist by the name of Llio Rhydderch, but he couldn’t remember its name. Producer John Hollis found it on the Internet. It was called “Conset Ifan Glen Teifi”, “The Concert of Ifan Glen Teifi”. Teifi is the name of the river that runs through Cardigan. It’s a lush and beautiful Welsh waterway and the tune fitted Seckou’s Manding melody “Niali Bagna”, named after an old Wolof king, like a hand fits an old glove. Seckou then added an old Manding melody called “Bolong”, meaning “The Arms of the Sea”. Finally Catrin overlaid “Clychau Aberdyfi” or “The Bells of Aberdovey”. Everything found its place in the whole without coercion, like the pieces in a puzzle or the water of many rivers flowing into each other for their final journey to the sea. That’s how most of “Clychau Dibon” came together. Strange symmetries. Strange coincidences. Andy Moran – CD cover notes

It is really during live performances that the seven recorded tracks on Clychau Dibon take on a life of their own with the songs expanding into much longer dialogues between the two string instruments, allowing for exquisite flutters of notes, dazzling bass lines, entirely new improvised sections and even vocal parts or percussions. The new music emerging from the unlikely fusion is a true delight for the ears.

See also music critic Andy Morgan’s book Finding the One – The strange and parallel lives of the West African kora and the Welsh harp published in 2014.